When we think about the Middle Ages, then a knight in shining armor is probably the first thing that we imagine. And yet movies also love to depict the villain in black armor. So that bears one question. Was medieval armor painted?
Only the late medieval mass-produced plate armor used by regular soldiers and low-class men-at-arms was painted since the paint was an inexpensive way to decorate low-grade armor. The plate armor that medieval knights wore was never painted but grinded and polished until it was mirror-bright.
Let`s take a closer look!
Was armor painted in the Middle Ages?
Armor constantly developed throughout the Middle Ages from the early Hauberks (shirts of chainmail) to full suits of plate armor in the Late Middle Ages. However, since chainmail can not be painted we only have to look at late medieval plate armor for the answer to the question of whether or not medieval armor was painted.
The first problem that we face when answering that question is that most original medieval helmets that still exist today have been grinded and polished in the last couple of hundred years by collectors. And while there are some helmets where some small particles of color are left, only few painted armor actually survived unharmed.
One famous example of a painted late medieval helmet can be found in the Wallace collection in London. That helmet, a sallet, was produced at the very end of the Middle Ages in the early 16th century and was painted with a linseed-oil-based paint.
However, two things have to be remembered when talking about that specific helmet and painted late medieval armor in general!
Not only was that specific Sallet produced at the end of the Middle Ages, but it was also produced quickly and less carefully. And that is actually an important detail. While the plate armor of late medieval knights was carefully produced and grinded and polished until it was mirror-bright, the plate armor that normal soldiers wore was produced quickly and cheaply, but in great numbers.
The kind of mass-produced plate armor that was pretty commonly worn by late medieval soldiers usually had uneven lines, jagged edges, and bumpy surfaces, and was not grinded and polished like the armor of a knight but instead left rough-from-the-hammer.
That kind of mass production made late medieval plate armor quite affordable (the plate armor of a medieval soldier cost between 4 and 6 monthly wages of a craftsman) so that most combatants on a late medieval battlefield wore more or less complete suits of plate armor. Here you can find out more about just how common plate armor was in the Late Middle Ages and what degree of plate armor a citizen in one of the cities had to own.
The majority of the mass-produced late medieval plate armor that was left rough from the hammer was brightly painted. Just like modern soldiers, medieval soldiers occasionally also painted monsters or symbols on their armor, especially their helmets. But the painted armor did not only make its bearer more intimidating, it also served as a way to identify allies in combat. That was especially important when helmets with visors that covered the entire face became common.
But since the mirror-bright polished armor was associated with the knightly class, knights could not rely on paint to show their affiliation. Instead, knights used 3 ways to tell apart friend and foe during a battle.
Ok, so only mass-produced armor of lesser quality was painted. But how was that kind of armor painted?
How was medieval armor painted?
Do you remember how I wrote that the mass-produced plate armor was not grinded and polished, but left rough from the hammer and with a bumpy surface? Well, the bumpy surface was essential for being able to paint the armor because the paint would not have stuck to the smooth, polished surface of the mirror-bright plate armor that was associated with the knightly class.
Do you want to find out more about how the plate armor of knights was polished? Then I would like to recommend you my article here!
The hammered, rough surfaces of mass-produced low-grade late medieval plate armor that was worn by regular soldiers and lower-class men-at-arms was an ideal base for the paint. The armor was painted in bright colors with slow-drying linseed oil-based paint. But the painted finish was pretty fragile so not a lot of painted armor survived until today, especially since collectors during the last centuries oftentimes polished formerly painted pieces of armor.
So while the mass-produced, lower-quality, painted plate armor was much more common on late medieval battlefields than the mirror-bright plate armor worn by knights, today only very few pieces of painted medieval armor exist.
Speaking of rare pieces of armor. While this article talked about quite affordable armor, there was also the exact opposite: Golden armor! Yes, you read correctly. There was such a thing as golden armor in the Middle Ages. Do you want to find out more about that type of armor and whether or not it was made from solid gold? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).*
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).*
Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*
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